Qué pasa, Venezuela? – What is happening in the invisible country – Elena Vedovello, Italy


Source: National Geographic

Venezuela is a country in South America that is bordered by Colombia, Brazil, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. It is rich, if you’re talking about natural beauty – in fact, Venezuela is ranked seventh in the list of nations with the highest biodiversity. Its oil reserves, the largest of any single country in the world, make it one of the planet’s top oil exporters. Sadly, Venezuela’s economic situation doesn’t reflect what the country should be obtaining from its resources.

Source: tharawat-magazine.com

Venezuela is in fact facing a huge crisis, with shortages of food and electricity, and violence in the streets a daily struggle for its people. The government is trying to blame Venezuela’s problems on the gringos, especially US politicians, who (according to the president) want to start an economic war against the South American oil industry. However, this tells us nothing about how the crisis was begun. To sum up the situation, I believe we must focus on these concepts: petròleo, gobierno, crisis econòmica y violencia – that is, oil, government, economic crisis and violence.

Since their discovery in the 1910s, petroleum reserves have become vital to the country. They were such a lucrative resource that Venezuelans pinned all their hopes there and made few efforts to develop other economical sectors, like agriculture. Nowadays the country relies almost entirely on oil exports, with little food being produced locally. In the past, oil exports guaranteed a successful income for the country, especially when the prices were rising fast. President Hugo Chavez, who ruled the country from 1999 to 2013, could count on this. He had strong leadership skills, inspired by the national hero Simòn Bolìvar, and his Socialist Party had many supporters, especially from a low socio-economic background. Hugo Chavez’s political reforms, their basis in socialist ideals, were made to help the poor and to build houses and shelters for people. He was charismatic and people idolised him. Many, including President Maduro, still adore him today.

During Chavez’s rule, oil prices stayed high around the world and he had the potential to make Venezuela a strong and prosperous country, – that is one of the reasons many people miss his government. When Hugo Chavez died in 2013, his vice president Nicolàs Maduro took his place.

Maduro’s leadership was not as strong as Chavez’s was, and he wasn’t as lucky as his predecessor to be ruling during a period of stability in the economy. From 2013 to the present, the oil industry has changed vastly, reaching the lowest prices of the past few decades. Maduro’s government was at a loss, and a huge economic crisis swept the nation. Venezuela’s large debt meant that food and goods which were imported from other countries started running out and queues appeared in front of supermarkets, forcing Venezuelans to spend from two to six hours everyday waiting to buy their supplies – without being sure if they would even obtain what they needed.

The government then decided that in order to cope with the shortages, they would nationalise food distribution. Therefore, they rationed basic goods and ordered the army to control the supermarkets and enforce the rule that people couldn’t queue twice or more a day. Since goods were hard to buy in the regular market and the prices were sky high because of inflation, they actually turned out cheaper on the black market. For example, 900 Venezuelan bolívars would buy a pizza and a water bottle. Based on official currency exchange rates, this would be $145, but black market rates put it at just $3. (This is based on 2014 data, after which inflation grew.)

Barrio en Caracas by

Barrios de Caracas (Source: http://blogberlinmd.com/)

As the economic crisis worsened, people from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds were pushed into extreme poverty. Poor people in Venezuela are gathered in slums, called barrios in Spanish, where violence, drug trafficking, and lack of health and educational services are the norm. In the barrios, fights among different gangs are common, creating a hopeless environment for the citizens, who have houses and some food to live, thanks to the socialist regime, but will never have the opportunity to change their situation or hope for a better future for their children. The barrios are very fertile ground for Maduro to gain support; almost every family in the slums believes in him and supports him unconditionally.

As soon as the crisis began in 2013, the government began a policy of denial. They told people that the country was doing well, that it was in a good situation and that any fear of a crisis came from opposition groups who were planning a coup. Maduro and his party were able to do this because they control the radio and TV, and in one notable TV show, the president is shown every night, telling stories and jokes. Since TVs and radios are nationalised, freedom of speech is not guaranteed in Venezuela.

Suddenly, in 2014, people took to the streets, speaking up about a situation that had been in the making for years but only saw light when president Chavez died. Students were the first ones to organise protests, and rallies were held in many cities, from San Cristobàl in the East to Caracas in the North. They despaired that Venezuela was living under what they called a dictatorship with Nicolàs Maduro as president. People were tired of the violence in the streets that killed more than 20,000 people every year. They were afraid of economic crisis, they were sick of having no freedom of speech, and they wanted a more democratic Venezuela. The government suppressed the protesters with weapons, tear gas, arrests and assassinations. Armed groups called colectivos, which were used by the government to scare the people, started using violence against protesters, killing many.

After almost three years of protests during which many opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopez, Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma were jailed without due legal process, on 6th December 2015 the opposition gained the majority in the legislature, Venezuela’s National Assembly.

This brought hope to those against Maduro’s government because the new Congress had potential to make big changes in the country’s constitution. With this power, the opposition wished to free journalists and leaders who were unfairly imprisoned, and to obtain more transparency in trade in order to deal with corruption. However, in January 2016, following pressure from the ruling party, three members of the opposition left the congress, depriving them of the majority needed to make changes.

In March of this year, the opposition coalition of the National Assembly declared that they wanted to remove Nicolàs Maduro from office. To do so, they intended to call a national referendum, which would be constitutionally legal once Maduro’s term was half over, in April 2016. But with the economic crisis at a peak, president Maduro declared 60 days of emergency – giving himself more power. He imposed increasing taxes, state control on businesses, a devaluation of currency, and a raise on oil prices for the first time in 20 years.

Since February, the country has faced frequent blackouts caused by a drought influenced by El Niño that has affected the country for months. Many shops in Caracas had to be closed down because there was no electricity. Government rationing of electricity mean that shops now operate only four hours a day. At the end of April the working week for public sector workers was reduced to just two days: Monday and Tuesday. On 1 May the government decided to change the country’s entire timezone to GMT-4:30 in order to save energy.

Venezuela is a country hit by severe drought, an economical, social and political crisis and a place where freedom is not always granted. It is also a nation severely divided by class, causing frequent heated protests. In a world where many countries are fighting wars against each other, a nation like Venezuela is easily forgotten, but despite all the deep-rooted issues tearing it apart, it seeks hope.

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